Like all treasures and despite its enormous size, Friday Mosque, Jama Masjid, takes some finding. We abandon our tour coach on the main road, because side streets are jammed with bullock carts and battered cars and people hauling giant bundles of vegetables. We follow our tour concierge Virendra and join the throng of ragged beggars and peanut sellers and passing businessmen toting mobile phones. Then suddenly a space opens up amid the tangle of alleys in Delhi's old town. The red walls of the mosque loom, topped by a massive ceremonial gateway.
We approach up a flight of stairs. At the entrance Virendra organises entrance tickets amid the scrum, and tips the caretaker of our abandoned shoes. Inside, it's the colour that strikes me first. The complex is flushed a deep red, almost purple.
Elegant minarets are red – almost pink – striped with lines of white marble like twists of candy cane. Boys in pink shirts are feeding pigeons in the courtyard. Old men lounge in the shade on carpets patterned in red and orange.
The building is superb. The mosque was founded by the great Shah Jehan when the Mughal empire was at its height and architecture in its golden age. It's just one of the emperor's many great buildings, including Delhi and Agra forts, numerous other mosques and the Taj Mahal. In common with those buildings, Friday Mosque is colossal in size, yet has an elegant beauty and exquisite detail. When it was completed in 1656 it became the main place of worship for the imperial court.
The mosque is mostly unchanged since that time, although the madrassa (Islamic school) on its southern side was pulled down by the British, says Virendra. He points out that the red sandstone and marble fusion architecture features Islamic vaulting and domes and carved Hindu roof beams and brackets. Our tour leader is ever adroit at providing good information without overload.
The elegant arches that enclose the courtyard provide a glorious, scalloped frame for views towards the Red Fort and old town. Shah Jehan called the mosque Masjid-i-Jahan Numa, which roughly translates as "the mosque that commands a view of the world". Mughal emperors were nothing if not self-assured.
The courtyard is massive. Some 25,000 worshippers can pray here. Muslims comes several times a day and particularly on Fridays. Now only women in brightly coloured saris wander the courtyard and young men lounge in the shade of the red colonnades. Barefoot tourists tiptoe around the bird droppings. Pigeons coo and flap in swirling flocks, drawn by the grain scattered across the flagstones by well-wishers. Virendra isn't one of them. "The pigeons are very stubborn," he says crossly, delicately wiping his feet with a scented tissue.
The mosque itself takes up one side of the courtyard, flanked by 40-metre minarets. Inscriptions in white marble, set above the entrance arches, outline the building's history and extol the virtues of Shah Jehan. Inside, the marble floor imitates the ornamentation on Islamic prayer mats. Three white-and-black domes and a host of smaller domes supported by 260 pillars form the roof.
Virendra lets us loose to absorb the magnificence. I buy a ticket and clamber up 130 steps inside one of the minarets for a pigeon's-eye view of the white marble domes and turrets from a narrow protruding balcony. It's a dizzying look down into the courtyard and over the surrounding sprawl of old Delhi. Bazaars spread in every direction, piled with fruit and sacks of spice and wooden toys. From the sublime to the everyday, India waits to be explored.
Malaysia Airlines flies from Adelaide, Darwin, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney to Delhi via Kuala Lumpur. Phone 13 26 27, see malaysiaairlines.com
The Imperial Hotel features art deco architecture and a lavish, colonial-era interior. Rooms from $390 a night. See theimperialindia.com
Luxury Gold's eight-day Essence of India with Ranthambore holiday visits Delhi, Agra and Ranthambore National Park and ends in Jaipur. Prices from $3595 a person including accommodation, transport, VIP experiences and dining. Phone 1800 001 783, see luxurygoldvacations.com
Brian Johnston was a guest of Luxury Gold and Malaysia Airlines.